Sunday, June 24, 2012

Give Me Words: some thoughts on athletic genius as we approach the Olympics

"Lewis, give me words."

 --Ashton Eaton to NBC announcer Lewis Johnson, shortly after breaking the decathlon world record

The Olympics is on everyone's mind in the running world. Though I wasn't able to watch the 10,000m trials, I did manage to follow it pretty well by refreshing on the message board. I'm psyched to see that Ritz and Teg made the team along with Rupp (who of course was the favorite) as I count those guys as part of my generation. (1)

Though I never approached the elite levels of the sport, I guess I got close enough to understand just how extraordinary these runners are. When I watch swimming or gymnastics or the NBA finals, I am impressed by the athletes, inspired by their efforts, and I can see the spark of athletic genius. But when I watch the distance runners, that genius comes through in a way that is simultaneously more intimate and less understandable, if that makes any sense at all.

As David Foster Wallace explains in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," athletic greatness is the most visible form of genius. "Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power, grace, and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of an animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves." What's strange about the visibility of this genius -- and this is the point of DFW's essay -- is that its source is opaque. Athletic genius is simultaneously obvious and literally unbelievable.

The unbelieveability of the runners in this year's trials 10k hits a distance runner with special vitality. I know what it means to run a 64 second quarter. Ten kilometers is a distance that is written pretty deep in my bones. But the two things together -- 64 second quarters for 10 kilometers -- leaves me speechless. As familiar as I am with these numbers, with the 400m oval, with the attitudes and habits of training and racing, I still cannot fathom these performances. This contrast between the familiar and the unfathomable is what keeps me riveted. My experience in the sport brings the genius of these runners into a sort of clarity that I don't find when watching other sports.

This is from a great photo essay by the Oregon Register.
Kant had a special concept for the experience I am talking about here: the sublime. He said that the feeling of pleasure that we get is due to the stimulation of our intellectual faculties. We want to apply a concept to what we've seen, but the concept refuses to fit, so we continue to "play" with the disjunct between understanding and experience. The sublime play of the beautiful points us toward unknown possibilities of experience and expands the human horizon.

After these great performances, both in the trials and eventually at the Olympics, we will be treated to all manner of post-race interviews, human interest stories, and professional analysis. Chances are pretty good that the talk will be dissatisfying, cliched at best, cheesy at worst. After Ashton Eaton's world record this weekend, he fielded countless questions that wanted to know exactly how it felt to be a transcendent athlete. All he could do was smile, give credit to his competitors, the community, talk about work and effort, being in the moment, waiting for it to sink in.

That's because athletic genius can't be put into words by the athlete himself. When reading DFW's essay, it starts to be clear that athletic genius and verbal genius are two different things entirely. Athletic performance is deep and inarticulate. The poetic and expressive mind has nothing to do with it, and in fact can only inhibit the deep focus required to do great things. DFW concludes his essay with the paradoxical thought that "we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only one able to truly see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it -- and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence."

I don't think DFW means this as an insult to athletic genius, and I don't take it to be a comment on the intelligence of athletes. There are intelligent and articulate athletes but their articulateness, I submit, has little to do with their athletic genius. Reflect, for instance, on our your own moments of personal genius. I think you will find that at the heart of them there is something that resists articulation. A blindness and a dumbness. Even as he was writing this essay, I understood DFW to be reflecting upon his own artistic gift, on the arbitrary nature of his own ability to string together a work of genius, and the irony that he could write with lucidity on the nature of athletic genius, but that when it came to the meaning and purpose of his own life, he remained blind and dumb, even in the face of critical success. (2)

What is the lesson in all this? While we watch these geniuses, I think we should appreciate them. But we should also appreciate our own reactions to them. It's us, the fans of the sport, those who watch, who bring these performances to life. The doing depends on the athlete, but the athlete depends on us to give meaning to that doing. This dependence forces a sort of responsibility on us to meet their effort with ours, to try to articulate and demonstrate the fullness of what we see and relate it to our own lives. The marketers get this, but I think that the rest of us should get in on the action. (3)

The Olympics is a chance for athletes, but just as essentially it's a chance for us to see something beautiful and to respond to it. It's in this response that the Olympics finds its meaning for the rest of us. After four years in which the media has been pretty fixated on how to respond to the ugly, I'm hoping we haven't forgotten how to respond to something beautiful. The athletes need the Olympics, but it seems to me that the rest of us need them even more.

*  *  *

(1) In fact, I remember reading an article way back in high school about Ritz's training. He was a year or so younger than me, but training harder. That article spurred my first attempt at 70 miles per week, an attempt that led first to ITBS, but eventually to running the sorts of times that made me a varsity level college athlete.

(2) I am alluding here to the fact that DFW took his own life quite savagely, and that in spite of his prodigious talents left behind a relatively small literary opus.

(3) I have to admit, I really like this Nike ad.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Simple Thoughts on Simple Stuff

"Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify." --"Thoreau, Where I Lived, and What I Lived for"

You are probably familiar with the above quote by Thoreau. If I were not saving my philosophical energies for other projects, I would ruminate on running as a practice of returning to the simple.

Instead, I want to sum up the results of some recent training and talk about the changes I am going to make in the next few months.

If you've been following along, I just spent the last 6 months chasing some 5k goals. I quit mileage whoring (biggest week: 75 miles and a ton of weeks in the 50s). I ran a ton of workouts on the track. I actually paid attention to recovery and stuff. And most importantly: I got my butt 12 times to the starting lines of races, including the mile, a 3k, a heapload of 5ks, a 5 miler, and last weekend a 10 miler.

The results? Just post college PRs in, oh, the mile, the 3k, the 5k, the 5 mile, and the 10 mile. I'd say it was a pretty positive season.

Being a runner, I'm not totally satisfied. But I'm about as close to satisfied as I get.

What next? Well, obviously I want to build on that success. This means, paradoxically, that I need to quit doing everything that got me all of this success. I need to care less about recovery, bump up my miles, get off the track. And most importantly: quit racing for a little while.

Why? Well, the reasons (as usual) are multiple.

1. Change is good. The body reacts to stimuli, and if you keep getting the same old stimulus from your training, then the body will cease to see that stimulus as a "stimulus" and just see it as something it can take care of without changing. The stimulus ceases to become a stimulus and just becomes what you always do. That's not training; that's stasis. This goes for the mind and the body.

2. I need to build my base. The whole beginning of this experiment was motivated by getting away from with base building. I had spent the prior 2 or 3 years slogging out miles in hope that running more would make me faster. Well, guess what: it did. Once I quit slogging the miles and became more purposeful about my training and racing, I was able to put that huge base to work. Although I wouldn't have had this great season without becoming more purposeful and mixing it up, the runner I am today would like to thank the runner I used to be for being so dogged, determined, and relentless in rolling up the miles.

3. A common saying is "you can't train well and race well at the same time." It's true, but like most true sayings, it can be easily misinterpreted. Training well is necessary for racing well. And they have to happen at the same time. What the saying really means is that you can't train hard and race well at the same time. (Any surprise that runners can't make a distinction between training well and training hard?) To race well, you've got to be fresh mentally and physically. Hard training, the type of training that really moves the line of fitness, means running tired. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, and while it is possible (and more frequent than you might expect) to run well during hard training, it is also possible to run really poorly and get discouraged.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I am entering an aerobic period of training. I will probably still race occasionally, but I am not going to put much stock in the results. From here to August or so, it's going to be easy running, tempos, and strides. Good, solid summer training that hopefully will allow me to make more progress in my racing this fall.

Best of all, this base building gives me a chance to return to the simple. I can forget dialing in certain paces. I don't have to worry about resting up for big races. No more to frittering away energy thinking about whether or not I hit the workout just right or went out too fast in the last race. I'll just put on the shoes, once or twice a day, head out the door, and take what I get.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Born to Run and the Allure of the Natural

It is popular these days (and attractive to us runners) to believe that humans are born to run and that running is a natural practice that somehow lies prior to culture or is at least shared across cultures. Of course Chris MacDougall makes this case most vividly in the book Born to Run by connecting running with two things: the ancient "pre-civilized" culture of the Tarahumara and the remarkably fertile image of the bare foot. He gives us a picture of running as something at least in principle raw, pre-consumer, and innate. These qualities of running, especially as practiced by this primitive tribe, make it a possible practice of liberating ourselves from a decadent, insulated, sedentary Western consumer culture.

The bare foot is a particularly potent sign for this liberation. It is a double image. A bare foot reminds us of two contrasting feelings at the same time: the stinging pain of stepping on a sharp gravel and the bliss of digging the toes into soft and dewy grass. By offering the promise that we could actually run again on these feet, McDougall implicitly makes a deeper, more romantic promise: that the sharp, stinging pains caused by our over-cultured hypersensitivities could be replaced with a naturally connected foot that feels the ground beneath it without being pained by it. [Side note: apparently it is possible to run on gravel without pain. Click this link to Barefoot Josh's video and see if you can watch without wincing.]

In other words, McDougall's implicit claim is that the natural state of human life is at one with its environment, and civilized culture, represented by the dainty and necessarily shod foot, has led us to a life that feels as if we are picking our way through a gravel field on underdeveloped feet. This is how the Tarahumara and the bare foot, the two stars of Born to Run, work together: the aboriginal, natural (and fragile) Tarahumara are the cultural equivalent of the bare foot. While each of these are naturally resilient and well-suited to their environments, the encroachment of contemporary culture has made them unnaturally fragile.

The fact that this book is so popular, even among non-runners, demonstrates that this narrative speaks to us. The shoe stands for culture. The effect of culture is to essentially damage and disrupt a natural body that works well enough on its own. The key to living well is to cast off culture and return to a more natural way of life. Readers of Rousseau will recognize that this is not a new argument. In the first chapter of Emile, Rousseau makes essentially the same argument about bourgeois culture, except his favorite article of clothing is not the shoe, but swaddling clothes, which inhibit the natural movement of the infant and essentially prepare it for a swaddled life of middle-class slavery.

As many of those who have tried out minimalism or barefoot running (or researched more fully the details of McDougall's book) have found out, however, MacDougall's account of the bare foot and the Tarahumara is more mythology than reality. Born to Run, as a narrative, is afflicted with the sensationalism, exaggeration, and hyperbolic claims that are both causes and effects of contemporary culture being out of whack with its environment. The very things that make it popular--its huckster spirit, its fools gold promises, its larger than life characters, its heros and villians--are part and parcel of the decadent, expanding, strip mall marketing culture that it criticizes.

In short, Born to Run is not so much critical of culture as it is a product of culture. Once we realize this, we begin to see that the difficulty of returning to nature and the body (or at least of living well in nature and in our bodies) is much more complicated than mythologizing the life of the Tarahumara or the qualities of the bare foot. In fact, the very mythologizing, looking for simplified images in response to respond vastly complicated problems, is symptomatic of our culture's insensitivity to the environment. We want our problems to have a natural and simple solution so that we can get over our sensitivity, quit tiptoeing our way through life, and get to some sort of "natural" and worry-free state that feels a little bit like the way grass felt beneath our feet as children. The only problem with a natural and worry-free state is that it is profoundly unethical. Childhood (or at least the popular image of childhood) is natural and easy--because it has no responsibilities.

 The basic problem with the return to nature argument is that it assumes that the natural state of human life is happiness. Rousseau made this assumption clear from the outset. He believed that the natural state had to be happiness because he believed that the universe was created by a benevolent deity. Post Darwin, this is a harder premise to buy. Physics and biology tell us that the natural state of things is indifference. Psychology shows us that the natural state of the human mind is to swing easily among various moods, and that some of us, perhaps even most of us, even tend naturally to melancholy states. All things considered, we do not tend to peace and happiness. These things come through effort and chance.

The universe doesn't give a damn.
The popularity of Born to Run shows that we have not yet made peace with a post-Darwinian view of the natural. We want to believe that culture--basically, from the point of view of nature, a series of human errors--is what makes us unhappy. If we could return to a natural state, somehow undo the errors that have accumulated through time, then we could find a native attunement, a natural happiness that is perhaps something like being at one with the creator of the universe. A feeling not unlike digging one's bare toes into the natural soil.

This line of thought paints culture as unnatural. For human beings, however, the most natural thing is to live in a culture--to make choices, to build tools, to communicate, hope, dream, and criticize. This is our natural state. To believe that happiness is found through a rejection of culture is itself a cultural idea, dependent upon cultural premises that are deeply flawed because they pit nature against culture. Culture cannot be cast off, like a pair of shoes. The challenge before us is to continue to refine and remodel--the pragmatist word is "reconstruct"--our cultural ways of living. Nature gives us no pure models to imitate. It only gives us an environment to live in. The problem is not how to return to nature but, as cultural animals, how to construct a culture that can co-exist harmoniously with the nature in which we find ourselves.

This is long, hard work. Interminable, actually, as the conditions of both culture and nature are constantly changing. This is what makes the shortcuts so tempting. We want to throw culture off entirely, romanticize the primitive, pretend we are "born to" do this or that. The reality is that we are born for suffering as much as for happiness; we are born to balance them as long as we can stand it; and we are born, eventually, to succumb to age, to injury, to death. What's natural is to be born, to grow, to decay, then to die. The natural, really, is a bummer.

But finding a happiness that is more than escapism requires dealing with bummers. We will never replace the sharp rocks of life with grassy meadows, and we will never eliminate pain from life. We are not born to run. We make ourselves runners, for a time, with effort, if we are lucky. In the same way, we are not born to happiness. We have to make it and remake it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Race Report: Music City Distance Carnival 5000m

The gods be fickle dicks with teeny pricks...and malice. Lots of malice. --J. Scovill

The running gods can only take so much. Since I wrote last week about how my training had been going well and played the expert before my goal race, I should have known the running gods would not be pleased. I even threw out the ambitious time goal of 15:30, as if it were a foregone conclusion. Well, it didn't turn out that way. I never felt great (or really even good) and ended up running 16:00 even though it was a perfect day for racing.

I was disappointed and moped around pretty good after the race.

On the positive side, there were a few things that came together that prevented me from running my best, some of which were mistakes I made in racing, others were things that just happen.

The most fundamental mistake that I made was that my race plan was both too rigid and too centered around pacing. I had imagined myself coming through 1600m in 4:56 feeling good, and I was convinced that would be the case. A couple things conspired against this. The first was that this pace put me in no-man's land. The front group went out a hair faster than that pace--they probably came through in 4:52. The second group was running 75s. So, I ended up sort of leading the second pack and having to set the pace. The mentality was one of time-trialing, and I felt more like I was running a workout and trying to hit splits than flowing and racing. I think that really I should have gone out with the first group, even if the pace was a bit hot and let them pull me. Maybe that would have gotten me more in a race mode.

So, instead of flowing at 4:56, I felt like I was pushing it to run 5:00. I kept hitting 76s, which was just strange, given how easy that pace had felt earlier in the week. I had some stomach issues during the day and before the race, so I think my body was not quite at its best. Instead of responding to this and settling back and taking what the day gave me, I continued to force my original plan on the race. This was a recipe for frustration, so by halfway through the race, I was pretty much mentally done.

At a little more than a mile to go, a fellow Nashville runner Jacob Carrigan--who had been smartly just sitting in and letting me do the work (he was focused on racing, not pacing)--made a strong move around me. I was too firmly entrenched in my mid-race pity party to go with him, so I just let him go. The last few laps, I really wanted to drop out, but even though I had mentally cashed out, I clicked them off and was able to finish. I'm glad I didn't take the DNF.

The low point of the night was during the race. Afterwards, it was really fun to hang out with Van and all the Nashville trackies who had come out to the meet. The highlights of the meet were watching Stephanie Garcia win the steeple and seeing Anthony Whiteman become the first 40 year old to break 4:00 for the mile outdoors. Van and I spoke with Whiteman just after the race, and he was pretty pumped up. He said the key to his success was not thinking about pace at all, but getting in fast races and going for the win. This from a guy who had just broken a major time threshold--not just for himself, but for the world.

Stephanie Garcia, yep.
So, even though the running gods--the fickle dicks--smote me pretty good in the race, they were not totally unkind. They reminded me that the key to running well is not chasing times, but getting in the hunt and competing.

I'm looking forward now to rebooting a bit, doing less track training and more easy running on the roads. I had a great easy 6 miles last night that reminded me that racing is only part of why I love this sport. It's awesome to run fast, but it's also nice to simply run, it's nice to geek out over training, and it's even fun to hammer intervals on the track with your friends. Do we do these things for the race? Or do we race in order to do these things? Good thing we don't have to decide.

Oh--and one last new milestone: it's pretty cool to feel like I have to right to be disappointed with a 16:00 clocking.

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